Where the Rubber Leaves the Road...
Thursday bike night at a Sonic Drive-In is a diverse meet-and-greet for local sport bike riders, some of whom have been tagged as "hooligans" because of their extreme street antics. Patrick Stephens, below, is widely considered one of the top five professional stunters in the country.
Top photos: Peter Calvin
Like flies to honey, they swarm into the Sonic Drive-In on Northwest Highway near Garland Road, revving their high-performance motorcycles as if to announce their "Hey, look at me" arrival. Some ride their sport bikes solo, others travel in packs, a few have passengers draped across their backs. No protective gear is required among these die-hard libertarians. Riders dismount wearing full leathers and full-coverage helmets, bare heads and blue jeans, big grins and bigger egos as they socialize with friends and strangers for their regular Thursday-night show-and-tell. Tales are told--some taller than others--about bikes bought and sold, about street racing and freeway stunting, about cop chases and crashes, about fortunate near misses and others not so fortunate.
It's early yet, not even 9 p.m., but the place is packed with more than 200 machines. The heavy June rains have kept riders close to home, but tonight's clear skies have many of these bikers jonesing to play in traffic. It's a friendly crowd really, young "squids" (squirrelly ass kids) right out of high school schmoozing with seasoned motor heads who actually have lives; whites, Latinos, blacks and Asians coming together because they share the same connective tissue: the sport bike. Don't expect to find many Harley-Davidson owners here; their brand-name arrogance and patriotic machismo make them downright dismissive of these faster Japanese imports. Yet own one of these "rice burners" made by the likes of Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda, and you may gain access to a subculture in Dallas that is thriving, close-knit and often bordering on the illegal.
"In the '60s and '70s, Harley riders gave motorcycles a bad name," says a 40-something rider. "Now it's the sport bike riders who are getting the same bad rap." Movies such as Biker Boyz and even The Fast and the Furious (original or sequel) don't help by glamorizing the shadowy side of the street-racing culture. They may incite impressionable newbies to push their bikes to the extreme--whether that means spooking traffic by racing en masse at 160 mph down the freeway or stunting on the street by popping wheelies with an attitude that discounts danger to others.
But many bikers will tell you that reputation is undeserved, that a few hooligans are ruining it for the law-abiding many. The sport bike is built to go fast (the most powerful can reach 200 mph) and corner sharply, they argue. It pitches the biker forward in an aggressive riding position, and the whiny buzz of its engine can antagonize even in the lower gears. Police reports are replete with incidents of auto drivers road raging against riders who pop wheelies beside them; and riders will frequently trade stories of pissed-off police who profile them as outlaws, stopping them without cause. Of course, cops might consider that preventive detention: Many speed junkies make a sport out of running from the law, particularly since it is virtually impossible for a squad car to catch a "crotch rocket."
Some locals such as Carla Ulrichherring (a.k.a. Blue Goose Carla), who maintains a sport bike-friendly Web site, are relentlessly attempting to put the sport bike community in a more positive light. "Ninety percent of our people don't get involved in extreme riding," says Ulrichherring, a financial consultant. "Most just want to feel the freedom of the wind and the open road."
But whether it's Tuesdays at the Addison Blue Goose Cantina, Thursdays at Sonic or Saturdays at the Whataburger on West Northwest Highway,these bikers like to go fast. Tonight at Sonic, some of them will go fast and do stunts--wheelies, endos, burnouts. For the moment, however, their need for speed is being sublimated to their need for tater tots. Four police cars flank the drive-in, primed to stop any insanity that might spontaneously combust. Riders have been known to pop wheelies in front of the Sonic on Northwest Highway, to the awe of cheering onlookers. On freeways, they might crank wheelies at speeds exceeding 100 mph, challenging the pavement and each other. Defying gravity and the law, these bad-boy antics have given rise not only to an underground culture but also to a new sport: sport bike freestyle.
Although born in the streets, this sport hopes to legitimize itself by bringing stunting into controlled venues, much like motocross and skateboarding have. Stunt groups, promoting themselves through homemade videos and Web sites, have become some of the hottest hooligans since Tony Hawk began mass-marketing himself to 8-year-olds. Dallas has its share of pro-caliber stunters, who belong to groups such as Point of Balance, Strictly Vertical and SportBikeHype. One local stunter, Patrick Stephens, is considered among the top five in the nation. But there still exists a tension between those who want to turn the spectacle into a sport, hopefully bringing it into the popular X-Games where stunters might be judged based on the execution, variation and degree of difficulty of their stunts, and those who want to "keep it real" (and illegal) by keeping it on the streets.
Working the Sonic crowd Tuesday night is SportBikeHype's Dwayne Rush, who along with Stephens founded the first stunt group in Dallas. Rush is pitching a SportBikeHype event to a bunch of squids, attempting to convince them to attend so they can learn their extreme riding from his group within the safer environs of Texas Motor Speedway. "Fifteen dollars and you can ride around the track all day," says Rush, a large man who isn't a stunter himself.
It seems a bit hypocritical that Rush would preach about rider safety in a legal venue when one hour later he helps lead a group of nearly 100 riders for this evening's main event: a street ride. At a nearby Shell station, Rush and a second rider mount a white brick wall so they can brief the assembled about the ride. On other nights, the ride might be a mass run down LBJ Freeway to the George Bush Turnpike or Interstate 20. Some might break off to stunt at a secret spot in some warehouse district where the cops turn a blind eye as long as no one complains or gets seriously hurt.
"We are going around Fair Park," says the thinner, shorthaired rider. "When we get there, you can do all the stunting you want."
"Sit down, you pussy," shouts a face in the crowd.
Rush is quick to jump in. "A lot of us buried three people in the last few months, and all for stupidity. Now there will be some stunters up front; let them stay up front. Don't pass the leader. We are not in a hurry to get anywhere."
You wouldn't know it from the way they speed down I-30, running two abreastto a lane and stretching out for more than a quarter of a mile. Twenty minutes later, all have regrouped in a tucked-away East Dallas parking lot. Word has spread, and about 50 cars have joined the motorcycles, bringing together 200 spectators who watch as seven or so sport bikes go up on one wheel. Even if this spot is safer than the streets, even if the cops don't care, the stunting still feels illicit and looks dangerous. Some manage a wheelie for an instant, others for a hundred yards, each looping around, aching for another turn. It takes balance, strength and agility, but daring death while doing something illegal is what gets the adrenals pumping and hooks riders on the sport in the first place.
The bios of serious stunters sound strikingly similar: Kid gets a dirt bike from his parents as a birthday present. It has a small 50cc engine, and he can't push it much past 25, but he learns to jump and corner and fall. The road rash heals, the broken wrist is no big deal and he convinces his parents to buy him a bigger, faster dirt bike, one he can race at an off-road track. He gets good enough to win, but what he really wants is more speed, more power--a sport bike. In the beginning, it's just him and the machine and how fast he can make it run, which is really fast. He goes from 0 to 60 in 2.8 seconds; at full throttle, he can cover about the length of a football field in just over a second. He loves to lean into tight corners, trying to get a taste of concrete without laying it down. Someone tells him there are only two kinds of riders: those who have lost it and those who are going to. But that doesn't stop him from going 150, 160, 180 mph. At that pace, the rush is incredible: His vision tunnels; the speed makes everything go quiet. He feels invincible--no fear of the motorists who flip him off, not of the cops who can't catch him, not even of his own death. Going up on one wheel is no problem. Keeping it up is another thing entirely. And keeping it up at 150, that's when things can get chaotic--the wind, the traffic, the adrenaline. Even the best had better be careful.
Patrick Stephens is among the best. Growing up on dirt, he switched to street in 1997, riding the back roads close to his home in Alvarado just south of Tarrant County. He rode a Honda for a year before he became a road racer, entering sanctioned competitions and winning. To stay competitive, however, he had to race every weekend, and he quit because it was taking too much time away from his job. Buffed and blond, he worked as a personal trainer at an Arlington gym by day and as a stripper at LaBare at night. Although he thrived on the attention ("I think there is an exhibitionist in me"), he regretted handing over 40 percent of his tips to the club's management. So he began his own business, DFW Elite Strip O Grams. Despite managing seven other strippers and being much in demand himself as a cowboy or a cop or a construction worker on the bachelorette party circuit, he never gave up riding his sport bike.
"My friends and I started doing wheelies to see who could go the furthest," he says. "We would egg each other on, try to one-up each other." It seemed as though every time he went riding, the cops were chasing him. But he never got caught; he was too talented, and they were too slow. That the police might file felony charges on him for evading arrest, that they could easily rationalize beating the hell out of him if they ever did catch him, just made the chase more of a rush. "Never once was I scared they might box me in or catch me," he says.
What convinced Stephens that stunting was something more than a lot of testosterone-driven horseplay was a video he purchased from a bike shop in 1998, one made by and about the Starboyz, a stunt group from Ohio. The Starboyz drew inspiration from phenomenal European stunters such as Gary Rothwell and Kevin Carmichael, who looked and acted professional, wearing helmets and full leathers while they wowed spectators during sanctioned road-racing events. The Starboyz, on the other hand, were about anti-heroes and helped create the urban, fuck-the-police (FTP was the name of their video) hooligan mystique that many riders sought to imitate. Its members rode without helmets and shirts; sneakers and blue jeans, however, were standard issue. They lined the fairings of their bikes with their trademark fake fur, which covered the deep dents and dings that inevitably resulted from their street play. "They became so notorious," says Mike Seate, author of Street Bike Extreme, which documents the brief history of stunt riding, "that each of the Starboyz had an Ohio state trooper parked in his driveway, who announced he was following them around for the day so they wouldn't try anything."
At the same time, other stunters such as Florida's Todd Colbert and stunt groups such as the Las Vegas Extreme were making names for themselves. But Starboyz was the first group to develop a huge underground following on the strength of its video. Every bike shop in the country wanted to stock FTP, which eventually would sell more than 200,000 copies, according to Seate, and become a how-to manual for wannabe stunters. It would also become the marketing prototype--half-naked girls, loud music (rap, hip-hop or alternative rock), bike crashes--for aspiring stunt groups that would turn cameras on themselves.
"The whole pop subculture that follows this is very urban, baggy clothes, pierced nipples," Seate says. "It's a big departure from what everyone thinks a motorcycle rider should look like--long beard, ZZ Top. You can go a whole week at a stunt meet without having to hear the goddamn Eagles."
After studying the Starboyz video, Stephens attended a bike week in Daytona and learned how to master the 12 o'clock wheelie, which sends rider and bike to the vertical balance point and separates the squids from the pros. Stephens gained some notoriety with the locals outside the Sonic Drive-In, impressing them with his one-wheel prowess. During one bike night in 2000, Dwayne Rush, a computer network engineer, approached him about making a 30-minute TV show about stunt riding; they would call it SportBikeHype. Stephens agreed, but the financing fell through, he says. Instead, they started a riding club by the same name, made up of stunters, racers and hangers-on mostly, going to industrial parks and parking lots, charging down the freeways for mass rides and stunts. Out of these antics came the obligatory bad-boy video, which seems to contradict what SportBikeHype claims it believes: "that it is better to work from the inside and to try to present an alternative to on-street misbehavior."
Yes, SportBikeHype will occasionally lead bike-night street rides, says the group's attorney Jim Clutts Jr. "But who did Jesus work among? The sinners. You have to make contact with the people who are at the greatest risk--the kids who will loft one going 90 mph on the freeway--and then present them with an attractive, safer alternative...In our own way, we believe we are saving lives."
A dispute over video royalties, Stephens says, led to his severing his relationship with SportBikeHype. "It was just a marriage gone bad."
Stephens continued to hone his skills, traveling to every stunt show he could afford, learning the newest tricks and improving on them. On his Honda 929, he perfected the slow wheelie at 2 mph, a rolling endo (a front-tire wheelie) of 410 feet and a long-distance wheelie of 21.4 miles. His friend and former SportBikeHype member Greg Fowler topped him with 41.3 miles, which is believed to be a world record. Stephens came in fourth at a Daytona stunt competition sponsored by the XSBA (X-treme Sport Bike Association), a governing body promoting sanctioned competitions for stunt riders. "Patrick's riding is clean and precise. And he is very innovative," says Ken Abbott, director of competition for the XSBA. "He did a trick at Daytona last year that everyone is still trying to figure out." Stephens calls the trick "Captain America," which has him getting his bike up vertically in a 12 o'clock wheelie while he leaps into the air and kicks out his body horizontally.
Although he can't give up his job as a stripper, nor does he want to, he claims he made more than $30,000 in prize money from stunt competitions last year. And with success came corporate sponsorship--not the kind of cushy endorsement deals that would net him real money but mostly local sponsors who trade him free products and repairs for the 11 logos he brandishes on his bike and leathers ("I feel like a moving billboard," he says). And with sponsorship comes responsibility, not only to his sponsors but also to himself. He has known too many friends who have died on the streets, too many cops who won't give up the chase until someone gets hurt, too many kids who try to imitate his stunts too soon. "It's been a year since I gave up riding the street," he says. "It was the right thing to do."
"Put on your damn helmet," Matt Fox yells across the parking lot to a careless stunter. At 34, Fox is an old motor head who holds a 9-to-5 in the mortgage business. But on sunny Sundays like today, Fox is also head safety monitor and president of Strictly Vertical, one of the newer stunt groups in town. He directs traffic and practice, minimizes the mishaps and massages the egos of aggressive stunters with names such as P-Nut and Tree--all in the hopes that within two years Strictly Vertical will be good enough to compete in the X-Games, if stunting can ever gain that level of legitimacy. To make that happen, Fox insists his group only do its stunting at legal spots. Strictly Vertical has been lucky enough to find a sweet spot in Coppell: industrial-strength concrete, a consenting owner and a wide patch of pavement lodged between loading docks. The Coppell cops even come out and watch, figuring it is better to stunt on private property than in traffic. No cops have yet to pay a visit today, but Fox knows the importance of staying right with the police.
In summer 2002, CycleWerkz, a Carrollton bike shop, was the spot of choice for many local stunters, drawing 750 spectators a night to its parking lot. But after Channel 11 did a news story that depicted local sport bike riders as "a bunch of outlaws running from the cops," Fox says, the Carrollton police convinced the shop's landlord to prohibit stunting on its property. It didn't help matters that many of those same spectators would do freeway wheelies coming and going to the spot. It also didn't help that 400 riders drove to Carrollton police headquarters in protest, revving their engines in a display of solidarity while SportBikeHype captured the demonstration on its soon-to-be-released video. Fox was there. "Basically we were saying, 'We are not all bad. You took away our playground where we went to get off the streets.'"
But the police are in the business of chasing bad guys, and when someone stunts and runs, they are trained to pursue. "There are two problems with chasing sport bike riders," says one veteran Dallas police traffic detective. "Their tags are just minuscule, and if they are wearing full-coverage helmets, you can't ID them. If they get on the freeway and they know what they are doing, you can't catch them unless they stop or wreck out."
Three of the riders in the SportBikeHype video are now dead, Patrick Stephens says. "One of them wrecked out doing wheelies in traffic. Another hit a tree and his bike fell on him. The other got run off the road by a car."
"No matter how much money you spend on your bike," says the Dallas detective, "the laws of physics still apply to you."
Although the number of fatal motorcycle deaths has jumped more than 50 percent since 1997, perhaps no death was more tragic to the local sport biking community than that of big-hearted Kelly Howard, a one-time DJ at KEGL who only recently had purchased a sport bike. On April 17, she attended Sonic bike night and decided to make the evening's freeway run with somewhere between 50 and 100 riders. Police reports say she lost control of her bike and struck the retaining wall while taking the I-35 off-ramp to Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Bad publicity has caused the sport bike community to be protective of its own, and few want to speculate on what went wrong. "Everybody knows what the story is," Fox says. "For her riding ability, she should have never been at the front of the pack. You ride with that many people and you think you are 10 feet tall and bulletproof."
Fox does his best to convince the members of Strictly Vertical to do their stunting off the street. But when Chris Perry, alias P-Nut, and Brian Andrews, alias Tree, founded the group, membership depended on what P-Nut calls "gaming"--being able to pop a wheelie for a minimum of one mile. After Fox took over, the group lost those who were only in it for the game and attracted more serious stunters. P-Nut and most of the members have also altered their bikes for the slower, more challenging stunts that require more control since there is no speed to propel them. As a result, these customized stunt bikes top out at barely 70 mph and make highway heckling a distant memory.
At the spot, P-Nut, a disciple of Patrick Stephens, executes his stunt routine--12 o'clock wheelies, switchbacks (riding backward), no-handed highchairs (legs over the windscreen), flamingo wheelies (one foot on the seat, one foot stretched behind)--with speed and precision. Between the summer sun, the sweltering concrete and the energy expended under his thick leather jacket and helmet, P-Nut sweats enough to down a gallon of water. Waiting his turn, he watches three other stunters doing side-by-side wheelies. From out of nowhere, a fourth rider plunges head-on into the choreography, splitting the stunt and spilling himself and another rider onto the pavement. It's Amos, a friend of P-Nut's and not even a member of the group. A peg from the second bike tears into the meat of Amos' calf. Blood is pooling, his leg is obviously broken, the compound fracture has his foot looking as if it were stuck on backward.
"I need a truck," Fox yells.
"He busted his shit up bad," Tree says.
"Don't go over there; it's gross," says the girlfriend of another stunter. "There is blood everywhere."
But broken bones are a badge of courage; bulging discs, separated shoulders and torn ligaments define the level of risk stunters are willing to take.
Amos is placed in the bed of a pickup, his pain evident and extreme. His girlfriend cradles his head in her lap, but that doesn't soothe his moaning. "What's the fastest way to the hospital?" someone shouts.
Matt Fox grows frustrated. This is what he gets for letting nonprofessionals into his practices. Then again, he feels obliged to teach new riders in a controlled setting. There's no better way to legitimize and grow the sport. "That's it. Everybody outta here," he says as the pickup speeds away. "Fun's over for today."
The crowd seems older and definitely tamer on Tuesday nights at the Blue Goose Cantina in Addison. The parking lot is still lined with about 100 sport bikes and their riders, some of whom feel uncomfortable revealing their identities. "I am a doctor, and I am not going to tell you my name," says one Kawasaki rider. But no one can refuse the gentle interrogation of Carla Ulrichherring as she greets arriving riders with a Hollywood hug--kicking her leg back--and asks for the latest bit of biker news for her Web site, www.bluegooseriders.org.
"If people come out here, they are going to get a hug," she says. "This is a community that's in the hospital a lot."
Blue Goose Carla, as she is known, is the Mother Teresa of the North Texas sport bike community. She loves everything about sport bikes but driving them. "I like my men to be the ones in control," she jokes. At 43, she has logged more than 250,000 miles on the back of bikes, countering her prim California upbringing, which included ballet lessons and fox hunts, with a "passion for speed."
Her self-appointed mission is to offer those sharing her passion a sense of community, a forum where they can learn about the latest bike, the latest ride, the latest death. She also sees herself as the moral conscience of the community, proselytizing for safety and legal street riding, while working for better relations with the police. But her greatest challenge is to see stunting--or freestyle, as she would prefer it being known--make it as the next fully sanctioned extreme sport complete with mega-corporate sponsorships, a uniform point system and insurable events. "Stunting is the easy part," she says. "The hard part is teaching these guys how to live morally. At 18, the biggest thing they have going is one-upping the next guy because it wins girls. But as they get older, those same girls get tired of bailing them out of jail."
Other extreme sports gained legitimacy despite their outlaw chic: Stock car racing traces its roots to moonshiners who attempted to outrun the law; skateboarders in search of their next rail were busted for destruction of property; and many snowboarders were banned from ski slopes until they turned into a huge revenue stream. But each of these sports had to downplay its bad-boy image before corporations were willing to sponsor them. Companies such as Subway and Taco Bell have shown no interest in their products being endorsed by riders who are willing to risk their lives, their reputations and their medical insurance for the freedom to play in traffic. "Stunt groups want the sponsors and the motorcycle industry to accept them, but some of them don't want to conform to the industry standard to let that happen," says the XSBA's Ken Abbott. "Others are trading in the street hooligan thing for the right safety gear and press kits and videos that move 10,000 copies."
Last year, the XSBA held five sanctioned events, which were part of its national championship series that crowned its national stunt champion Thew Blankstrom and awarded him a paltry $2,500 in prize money. Although the events were shoehorned into its Formula USA road racing series and many prominent stunters refused to participate, Abbott claims the sport is exploding (more riders, more video sales, more magazines, more fans). But his events feature only one class--individual freestyle--although other events such as the longest endo and team freestyle are being considered. He says he has purposely "tried to somewhat suppress the sport" because many of the riders are not ready to be professional athletes. "They don't know how to present themselves to the public and the media. They are good at showing off what they've got, but not good at polishing it up and putting it together in a format that is entertaining to a lot of people."
Blue Goose Carla believes she has found the right mixture of moxie and maturity in Point of Balance, the stunt group she manages. The group hopes to cast itself in a more positive light, shattering the Biker Boyz image through its G-rated Web site www.pointofbalance.com and its not-yet-released G-rated video (no highway stunts, no women in thongs).
Tim Barnes, the president of Point of Balance, is a former dirt biker with enough business savvy to recognize entrepreneurial opportunity. He manufactures several safety devices that protect the sport bike from the beating it takes from stunting. Point of Balance members have taken their act off the road and put it in controlled venues, working the drag strip circuit as a sideshow during intermissions.
But Barnes and Blue Goose Carla have bigger plans, hoping to promote a series of sanctioned events that will give the sport the kick-start it needs to gather real momentum. Point of Balance will be host team at the Lone Star Biker Bash, billed as "the biggest biker rally ever to hit the state of Texas." Booked into the Texas Motor Speedway in September, it will attract stunt groups from across the country to compete for $25,000 in prize money.
Barnes says he doesn't drink or do drugs ("I always got my fix by seeing how high I could jump and how fast I could go"). And despite a fondness for telling old traffic stories that would make him a hero at any Sonic bike night, he is searching for ways to make stunting more family-oriented. "We are trying to do something a grandmother will take her grandson to," he says. "We don't want to offend. We just want to amaze."
Although Point of Balance might set a positive example to convince some young riders to do their "freestyle" at the track, the street is still damn seductive and the stunter's high too tied to the taint of illegality. "Keep in mind that for every person who is willing to go to a sanctioned show at a drag strip," says author Mike Seate, "there are other people who think that putting rules around stunting is ruining the purity of the sport. They want to keep it real. They want to keep it in the streets."
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